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The Red Pen: Five Things That Really Annoy Me

When applying for jobs, my cover letter states that I don’t even date people who can’t use punctuation correctly. That line often gets me work, but what’s even funnier is that it’s true. One night, I was having drinks with a girl I was considering breaking up with. (Yes, I ended a sentence with a preposition; trust me, it’s okay now.) We were on our way to a birthday party, so she began writing the card. Her friend was turning twenty-nine. She wrote:

Happy “29”th Birthday!

Are you kidding me? Maybe, maybe I could understand if the quotes were around the entire 29th and she was really saying her friend was turning thirty, but it was only around the numeral. What does that mean? Other than to indicate dialogue, quotes are used to call attention to ironic or apologetic words. What is ironic about the 29 in 29th?

I broke up with her about five minutes later. I didn’t go to the party.

I am a professional copy editor and I love my job. I love reading people’s stuff and making it better and clean. I love explaining a rule to someone and seeing the moment he gets it. I love releasing my perfectionism in healthy and productive ways. I love being paid for something I can’t really help doing anyway.

The life of a copy editor is a curious one. We dream of a world in which things are perfect—rules are adhered to and guidelines followed. We yearn to read something that doesn’t look like it was murdered with a red pen when we’re done with it. But if these things were true, we wouldn’t have a job. We need you; you need us. You hate us; we make fun of you. Ah … the circle of life.

I often get asked what annoys me the most—when people can’t tell the difference between your and you’re? When folks don’t know how to use title case? The use of fragments? Yes, yes, and yes. All these things annoy me, but these five offenses annoy me the most.

5. using all lowercase
When I was growing up, one of my favorite poets was e.e. cummings. Back then, before texting and IMing destroyed the grammatical fabric of our lives, nobody wrote in all lowercase. What he did with lowercase is what Michelangelo did with paint, what Paula Abdul does with crazy. He made it sublime—the perfection of perfect. Check it out:

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

Honestly, have you ever written anything that profound? No—few of us have or will. His lowercase symbolized something—and it wasn’t laziness. The fact is that the first letter in a sentence is capitalized. Proper nouns are capitalized. “I” is capitalized. Until you are a renowned and accomplished poet, you are subject to these rules; please follow them. Take the extra .000059278414th of a second and use a capital letter.

4. Random Capitalization
In the same vein as #5, the other day, I saw this on a Web site … The deadline for reservations is March 11, so please make your reservations Today. Am I missing something here? Is Today a holiday, like Christmas? Is it a proper noun like Tuesday or February or God? No, this sentence was just written by someone missing a few chromosomes, a linguistic Cro-Magnon man.

I don’t know why, but people have no concept of what words should be capitalized. (Don’t even get me started on titles.) I cannot tell you how much I come across random (and baffling) capitalization, yet the rules could not be easier. Like I said above, capitalize the first word of a sentence and proper nouns. What is so hard about that? Here’s an oldie but goodie: capitalization is the difference between helping your Uncle Jack off a horse and helping your uncle jack off a horse. First one—nice; second one—ewwww. For the love of horses people, just think!

3. The Use of ’s
In the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the author discusses a group of concerned citizens that go out and fix inappropriate uses of apostrophes on signs and in other public places. Then she asks if there is a militant wing of the Apostrophe Protection Society.

I ask myself that very often because there is nothing like a misused ’s that will leave me wanting blood. I absolutely can’t stand it. You cannot imagine how many times I have explained this rule to people, and they never—ever—get it.

The apostrophe has three uses—to form possessives of nouns, to show the omission of letters, and to indicate certain plurals of lowercase letters.

Example 1: The copy editor’s job is frustrating and thankless.

Example 2: Don’t (Do not) get on the copy editor’s bad side.

Example 3: The copy editor has to mind her p’s and q’s when editing the CEO’s work.

That’s it. Period. Do not use apostrophes to make regular things plural (it is CDs, not CD’s; 1980s, not 1980’s; oranges, not orange’s). Do not put them in the wrong place (the childrens’ clothes or its’).

On that note, I humbly request that you learn the difference between it’s and its. It’s is “it is”—the omission of letters. If you can’t use “it is” in place of it’s, use its. Please!

2. Mispeled Wurds
Sometimes I wonder if people even went to elementary school. Now, we all make mistakes, even copy editors. Sometimes, typos are mistakes. But other times, typos only show a troubling lack of rudimentary computer knowledge. Unless you have been writing under a rock for the past twenty years, you have used Microsoft Word. Up at the top of the program is a little button featuring a check mark and ABC. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a nifty little thing called Spell-check—use it! And if you can’t even remember that, just look for red squiggly lines underneath words; if you see that, it means the word is spelled wrong. Sorry folks, there is no excuse for typos. They are the quickest way to a copy editor’s shit list.

There is a reason this is number one—it gets under my skin like scabies. There is nothing more agonizing than reading something that is overemphasized, yet people don’t think twice about using whatever weapon at their disposal. This is how it looks to the copy editor …


Obviously you think I have no deductive powers at all since you feel it necessary to bold entire phrases just to get my attention.

Look Einstein, we aren’t in high school anymore. Just because we underlined books in bibliographies back in the day doesn’t mean there is any modern use for underlining now. Please grow up and learn about the wonderful world of italics.

When used sparsely and thoughtfully, italics (in my opinion) are the only sophisticated use of emphasis.

Still think it doesn’t matter? Write a love note to your boyfriend and tell him how much you LOVE!!! him—then watch him run for the hills.

My advice—use italics for emphasis, bold for headings, and don’t ever use ALL CAPS, underlining, or excessive exclamation points!!!

If you think I am stodgy and pedantic, a nitpicky perfectionist, elitist, surly, and unwilling to move on from the golden days of grammar and good writing—you are right. But this is not about my enjoyment of exercising power over you and your poor grammar. No, this is about the power of grammar over you and me. Nobody is above grammar—not kings, not geniuses, not God. Even the Bible was edited.

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